Birding Cairns

Birding Cairns is a local bird-watching club based in Cairns, N.E.Queensland, Australia. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Also hosting the Cairns Birding Forum and Michaelmas Cay Report

Sunday, December 05, 2004



Asiatic Dowitcher, Cairns, Oct 2004.

© to Andrew P Anderson.


Alice Springs – August 2004
The Search for the Grey Honeyeater

The Grey Honeyeater is said to be one of Australia’s most spectacular and beautiful birds. They sometimes inhabit the Red Center area of Australia around Alice Springs. This seemed like a good reason for a trip so in August Lisa & I set off on a one week expedition to search for this bird.

Coming in to land by plane it became immediately obvious that the center of Australia is not red at all but very green, covered in luxuriant bushes, green grass and flowers. It is generally promoted as ‘desert’ but this is in fact not the case.

To demonstrate that I know how to show a girl a good time on holiday we first headed out to the Alice Springs sewage ponds. The sewage ponds were cold, windy and unpleasant. Fortunately they were full of birds such as Grey Teal, Hoary-headed Grebes, Red-necked Avocets, Coots, Black-fronted & Red-kneed Dotterals and other water birds. We had been there no longer than 5 minutes when a pair of Black Falcons were spotted, sitting on the ground, perhaps trying to get out of the wind. This seemed like an excellent start to the expedition. After a while the falcons took off and swooped about a bit in a falcon like manner before being chased off by Magpie Larks.

We wandered around the ponds for a while, our eyes streaming form the cold wind. After a while we heard a twittering from a salty area just below the ponds and after some walking about in the slushy area spooked a beautiful White-winged Fairy-wren.

We retreated to the town where Little Crows are plentiful in the town center, distinguishable from other crows to me by a softer ‘nark-nark-nark’ call.

Next we looked around the Alice Springs desert park. Here was an excellent display with flying Wedge-tailed Eagles and other hawks as well as good displays of local desert wildlife. In the walk-in aviaries was a good collection of some of the local birds like Chiming Wedgebills, Inland Dotterals, Little Button-quail and Bourke’s Parrots, that we would never see again.

The next day we set off to the spectacular Kunoth Well site about 50 km north of the town. Just before the well site a stop at a cold, windy nondescript piece of bush beside the road produced amongst others, Hooded Robins, Red-capped Robins, another Black Falcon, Chestnut-rumped Thornbills, Rufous Whistler, White-winged Triller and a Southern Whiteface.

Proceeding to the well itself, the first bird spotted there was a lone Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo. We never saw another one. In fact a number of times on the trip we found a single bird of a species and never saw one again. At the dam itself we frightened a small flock of Grey Teal and about 50 Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes. A Pallid Cuckoo came in to check us out as the sun started to rise and warm us up, requiring the removal of many layers of clothing put on to ward off the chill of the early morning. As we warmed up so did the local fly population, which out number the Grey Honeyeater population at a ratio of several billion to one.

Ignoring the flies gathering in clouds around us, we examined some more around the dam where Australian Ringneck parrots were common. A couple of the Ringnecks seemed to fly a bit differently and when they had landed we found them to be beautiful little Mulga Parrots. These Mulga Parrots seemed quite tame and not too worried about our nearby presence.

To escape the flies we got back in the car and with great excitement drove a little down the road to where the Grey Honeyeaters were supposed to be. Grey Honeyeaters are very fond of the eremophila bushes which grow in abundance along this road. On the way we passed a Crested Bellbird which obligingling sat in a bush calling as we reversed back up to him in the car. We spent some time searching these bushes which were in flower but largely devoid of bird life apart from the the eerie calls of Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters which were very common. We did find some Slaty-backed and also Yellow-rumped Thornbills here.

After quite some time not finding any Grey Honeyeaters we drove off the road through a cow paddock area to look for Inland Dotterals and Banded Lapwings. No Dotterals or Lapwings to be found but we were very pleased to find a pair of Banded Whiteface, which do not generally inhabit this area. I was quite pleased to have found 2 species of whiteface in the same morning, after not having seen any during the previous ten years.

The next day was spent exploring the East Macdonnell ranges. These were very pleasant but not very busy with birdlife.

In the evening we returned to Kunoth Well to see if any Bourke’s Parrots would come in. We had another quick look for the Grey Honeyeaters which still did not put in an appearance but here were a pair of Pied Honeyeaters, lots more flies and a solitary pair of White-backed Swallows. With so much insect life you might expect there to be more swallows. Also this evening were an abundance of Crimson Chats.

We returned late in the evening to sit by the waterhole and wait for the parrots to come in. I was very pleased to find a solitary Banded Lapwing beside the water. As the sun went down a number of Common Bronzewing pigeons came in to drink. The whole experience was not unlike sitting beside an African waterhole, but with less elephants.

After a while it became dark and no parrots had materialized. They will have to wait another day.

Next day we set out for the West MacDonnell ranges. Along this road, much travelled by tour buses, are a number of small interesting gorges. Some of these had Black-footed Rock Wallabies. Best of all was the beautiful Ormiston Gorge at the end. Dusky Grasswrens are aid to inhabit the Pound Walk, a 4 hour walk in this area. We walked uphill for about an hour in the evening but most of the spinifex was recent growth after fires last year, so there was not much far a Dusky Grasswren to hide in.

Someone told us that they had been seen yesterday on the Ghost Gum walk so we had a quick look there before it got dark. No Grasswrens but a very nice Painted Finch feeding quietly on the ground.

We stayed at the spectacular Glen Helen lodge which is highly recommended on a spectacular location beside a huge rockface and a bend in the river, which was full of water, this area not really being a desert.

I was up at first light the next day, obviously the best time to see Grasswrens, and walked up and down the Ghost Gum walk in a lovely still morning, the wind having finally calmed down. It was a very pleasant morning watching the Whistling Kites gliding along the gorge and a local fisherwoman throwing sand at a solitary Pelican to discourage competition.

I gave up on the Grasswrens and went back for breakfast and to collect Lisa. At about one o’clock in the heat of the midday sun I had decided to give up hope on the Grasswrens. Lisa suggested we have one last quick look before heading back and within 1 minute she had found a perky Dusky Grasswren 35meters away from the car park.

Back in Alice Springs we found information that Grey Honeyeaters can be found at the botanical gardens in the middle of town. At the gardens we did find a Western Bowerbird flitting about in the café accompanied by Grey-crowned Babblers. We spoke to the gardens curator who had never seen a Grey Honeyeater. The gardens were pleasant enough with less midges than the Cairns ones. Walking about we did find some Hill Kangaroos, but no Grey Honeyeaters.

Reading through the literature Grey Honeyeaters do also seem to be seen in Western Australia. That will have to be another expedition.

Dominic Chaplin

posted by Cairns Birds # 3:00 AM 0 comments

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